In 1920, Martin Hanson lost a big fight against San Francisco. But in his resentment and disillusionment, he succeeded in leaving a 7-foot-tall message in the middle of the city that stood for 31 years — with a mysterious letter hidden inside for a 6-year-old girl.
San Francisco had its spite fence , and Alameda still has a spite house . But Hanson's spite monument was one of a kind — a vertical concrete middle finger to the city from Twin Peaks that was meant to warn humanity about the dangers of progress.
Hanson, an idealistic and frustrated real estate agent, constructed the monolith in 1925, but he created it as a 50-year time capsule dating to his earliest land quarrels, to be excavated in 1968.
"What will 50 years bring to mankind?" the marble plaque declared. "Be just and fear not. Do right whether it pays or not. Immured is a letter to Elva to be delivered Nov. 11, 1968."
No one knew who Elva was at the time, other than that she was 6 years old when the letter was written. But a grown-up Elva would be there with her children to see its contents when the monument was demolished 12 years early, in the name of further progress, in 1956.
Even with its early removal to make way for the widening of Market Street, the monument lasted 19 years longer than Hanson, who died in 1937 at 80 years old. It's been all but forgotten in the decades since — we could find no news coverage of it after the jackhammers, Elva and the shards of stone were photographed the day it came down.
San Francisco historian David Gallagher brought Hanson and his monument to light in a recent Twitter thread . Gallagher said he was first tipped off by a local friend who asked him if he'd heard of the monument. Gallagher hadn't, but he found an old photo of it in the collection of the site he founded, OpenSFHistory . Other photos were in old newspaper stories about Hanson's quixotic feud.
"It's remarkably ironic that what he railed against came back and bit him again years after he died," Gallagher told SFGATE. "'We took your property, now we're going to tear down your monument too.' On its face, he's another SF character in a litany of characters from Emperor Norton to Frank Chu. That's what captivated me."
Gallagher also checked out a 24-page unsigned book from the San Francisco Public Library that was written by Hanson. Titled " A Mystery of Twin Peaks ," it was one of two letters that were embedded in the pillar for Elva. Not one to hide his thoughts for 50 years, he had copies distributed to the press when the monument first went up.
Hanson was a man of contradictions — while Gallagher calls him a "disgruntled capitalist," he was also a member of the Socialist Labor Party. Hanson emigrated to San Francisco from Norway and built a successful career as a real estate agent dealing in small rental properties, advertising in the local Swedish-language newspaper Vestkusten. He never married and had no children.
Even before Hanson built his monument, he was the subject of a 1923 San Francisco Chronicle story detailing his fight with the city. In 1920, San Francisco condemned some of his lots on Twin Peaks, at the time a sparsely populated hillside area where he lived.
The city's Board of Supervisors, attempting to accommodate increasing vehicle traffic, did this to extend and widen Market Street up to and past what was then Corbett Avenue. In the process, Hanson lost a house and adjacent land.
While the cottage in which Hanson lived remained, it was left boxed in by retaining walls with no street access. He also retained an adjacent 40-by-21-foot lot that was too small to build on. Already upset with the city for not paying him as much as he wanted for some underwater lots he owned, now his fury reached a fever pitch.
A 1955 Chronicle story reported that Hanson rounded up 30 neighbors' signatures and went to City Hall to protest the takeover. However, it added that at this point Hanson was "wiry, thin-haired, weakened by a stroke" and lost out to the city's engineer, Mike O'Shaughnessy.
By 1923, Hanson had moved to an apartment in the Mission District, and he left behind some large signs on his cottage to voice his discontent. One large, black-and-red sign on the roof read, "Improvement or confiscation?" It continued to say, "This property has been isolated. Former value, 4,500. Present value, NIL. Compensation received, NIL."
It isn't clear exactly how much San Francisco compensated Hanson for his troubles. However, when SFGATE contacted the Board of Supervisors, we were referred to its 1921 Journal of Proceedings . It indicates cash assessments for six of Hanson’s lots, ranging from $170 ($2,830 today) to $600 (9,989 today).
In 1925, with the message "A measure of progress" inscribed on top, the spite monument was born on Hanson's remaining triangular lot. A bench sat next to it, with an iron picket fence around it.
On one side of the monument, he included this passage from Oliver Goldsmith's poem "The Deserted Village": "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey/ Where wealth accumulates, and men decay."
Hanson didn't include Elva's full name in the plaque or his letters to her, but the 21-page portion he made public made clear the many forces he was railing against.
He chose Nov. 11 as the day his letter was to be opened because it would be exactly 50 years after Armistice Day — the end of World War I two years earlier and the peak of his hopes for humanity: "that militarism and absoluteism, etc. would be ended, the international spirit would supplant race hatred, and civilization would advance rapidly."
Hanson had been disappointed by what he saw as the effects of material wealth and productivity on the human spirit in the two years that followed. He bemoaned modern machinery taking away poorer people's livelihoods, and he saw corruption among corporations, the justice system, government officials and newspapers.
"I have written this letter, Elva, because the future seems so fearfully uncertain for the coming generation," Hanson wrote. In a separate section, he wrote, "Some property owners say they have more to fear from public officials than from burglars and bandits."
I think the newspapers wrote the story to be as sensational as possible. Mostly it’s a treatise on his supposition of the future, written to a person he imagined would be there. (he deals with the bias of newspapers, in the “letter”!) pic.twitter.com/yegxiGA0n3
— David Gallagher (@DavidGallagher) October 25, 2022
We should add that for some of his arguments on war, inequality and racial harmony that could translate to a political stump speech today, Hanson's letter also includes a highly problematic paragraph in which he refers to suppressing racial hatred "among the colored races with their greater ignorance and cruder development. And goodness knows our own people are crude enough."
Hanson ends the letter by describing a dream he had in which Elva is 50 years older, with "beautifully silvery white hair," and has a younger woman read her the letter because of her now impaired vision. And that if he could come back to life, "nothing would please him better than to see the people united and cooperating for their mutual interests, for that is the real secret of happiness and general prosperity."
Within days after the monument was built, it was vandalized twice — once by an attempt to cover it in paint, and then by people who tried to tie a cable around it and haul it away with a truck. But the attempt failed, and the monument kept standing, albeit with a damaged fence.
Because that section of Market Street in 1925 is now underneath the bridge that Market Street became, it's difficult to tell where exactly the monument stood. Using historical aerial photos, Gallagher pinpoints it to what is now Cuesta Court just to the side of the bridge, with a short staircase on one side that leads nowhere.
Because of its out-of-the-way location and Hanson living a seemingly quiet life from that point on, the monument fell out of mind quickly for San Franciscans. A two-part column by the Chronicle's Mildred Brown Robbins in 1938, one year after Hanson's death, covers the "mystery of the monument" and the contents of the copper box inside another box in which Hanson placed Elva's letter and other mementos. Still, the identity of Elva, who would then be 19 years old, remained a mystery.
"Is she in San Francisco? What does she think of her heritage? I should like to hear from Elva," Robbins wrote.
By 1943, Elva had been identified. Chronicle columnist Robert O'Brien said Elva Strandberg was now living in Sacramento. So, why in the world was an elderly man addressing a manifesto to a 6-year-old girl?
Gallagher pointed out in his Twitter thread that Elva was the daughter of Hanson's friend, Karl Strandberg. As Hanson had no children of his own, he projected his frustrations and concerns for the future toward her.
"I think it sounds weird personally, but it's more a letter to the future, and humanizing it with a letter to a girl he knew," Gallagher said. "It's more meaningful than just saying 'Here's what I believe.'"
That 1943 Chronicle column included an interview with the new owner of Hanson's Twin Peaks property, music expert Frank de Bellis, who said he would have already taken down the monument if not for World War II. (It's the same Frank de Bellis who has a library of Italian music and other donations named after him at San Francisco State University.) O'Brien wrote that "the whole incident is fading and it doesn't appear as though the monument will be there a great deal longer."
Only there it was still, more than a decade later. For whatever reason, de Bellis didn't take the monument down after the war ended, and he appeared to sympathize with Hanson. A 1955 report by the Chronicle about the monument said de Bellis "recalls a man embittered but gentle — one whose ideas dominated him and set him apart."
The story noted that by then, the monument's best days were behind it, calling it "abandoned in a thicket of wild blackberries, anise, ice plant and mustard. It is hard to realize that this was once the object of scorn and vandalism."
That year, the monument's fate was sealed. The Board of Supervisors agreed to pay $1,000 for the lot on which it stood to widen and straighten Market Street up to Portola Drive.
One year later, just two days after Armistice Day 1956, the monolith came down. An estimated 50 people, including several journalists, were there to see it jackhammered into shreds. Several old friends of Hanson's attended.
"Many bystanders seemed disappointed when no diamonds tumbled out of the corroded copper boxes," the Chronicle's story on the event said.
As for what was inside, contents included the famous letter inside its copper box, a photo of Hanson's despised new Market Street in 1921, Thomas Paine's book "The Age of Reason," three volumes of Eugene Sue's socialist novel "Mysteries of the People" and his letter/manifesto, "The Mystery of Twin Peaks."
And while a San Francisco Examiner reporter the day before referred to Hanson as a "peevish old man," one onlooker had kinder things to say: Elva Strandberg Rust.
Then 37 years old and living in Orinda, she was there with her husband, Frederick, and her son and daughter. When asked about her father's friend Hanson, she spoke of him warmly.
"I was just a little girl when I knew him, but he was a man who had ideals that even a child could feel," Rust said. "I think he would be very surprised and not too pleased with the world today."
As it turns out, Hanson's dream of Elva Rust as an older woman underrated her life span a great deal. SFGATE learned after contacting her daughter, Barbara Ward, who was at the 1956 demolition as a 7-year-old, that Rust is still alive at 104 and has lived in the same Orinda house since 1950. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, Ward said Rust is in hospice.
In Rust's backyard and laid in concrete, Ward said, is the same plaque that was on Hanson's spite monument. She also kept the very books Hanson placed inside it, along with a scrapbook that includes an article about the demolition.
Rust graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in public health, Ward said, and worked in the bacteriology and virology labs in local hospitals. Her husband, Frederick, died in 1999.
While she kept the mementos of Hanson's battle with the city, Ward said Rust didn't have much more to say about Hanson the man.
"We thought it was a neat thing he had done," she said. "It was an honor in a way, but since my mom was a kid when it was dedicated, it didn't carry a whole lot of honorific stuff. It was just kind of about the future."
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